Sunday, September 7, 2014

Peekin' Underneath The Hood - A Look At The 5th Edition D&D Players Handbook.

"Well, I ain't never bought somethin' without first takin' a peek under the hood." - An often heard expression from my neck of the woods.

As of August of 2014 Wizards of the Coast published the fundamental first book for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons; The Players' Handbook. For many of us who have been following along the twists and turns of the playtest, this was an exciting time. It was something I can say I was quite eager to examine post haste, and now have. After having done so I feel I can provide some degree of input for others who might be curious themselves.

First of all, there is some spit and polish here coming from the playtest material. Everything is fleshed out and with more options. For example the Warlock has been included as a playable class - complete with 3 different types of otherworldly patrons. There really is a strong foundation that has been built here, one that covers a wide ranging gambit of areas for play.

Everything begins with a wonderful forward by Mike Mearls, followed by some examples of play along with the standard how to play introductory stuff. Afterward we ease into things and are given our first real glimpse at the cornerstone of understanding any edition or game system; character creation. I don't care who you are or how many games you have ever played but one irrefutable truth is paramount; one of the best ways to get a feel for any game is to build a character for it. It may sound counter intuitive but its true. So, for me, with the first real chapter being a step by step character creation walk-through with examples is a fitting beginning.

A shinning high point among the 5th edition approach to things is clearly evident in the Players' Handbook and that is a depth of emphasis on fleshed out characters. By the second chapter we get into the races themselves and let me tell you even at the earliest of steps the detail encouraging design is already noticeable. Every race begins with a thematic flavor text quoted from various D&D novels to give you some feel for the race. There are entries on various aspects of each race's culture, physical characteristics, known customs, personality traits, outlook, etc. Really; they do a admirable job distilling the core essence of these playable peoples down into a concise digestible format that does precisely what it needs to.

Allow me to elaborate a little further here, because I don't want to do this any disservice. One of the many things I really loved about this first release of what is historically the core three essential books of any D&D edition is the fact that there is enough variety to keep things interesting without overwhelming you with an endless buffet of spiced up flavors. If you don't typically like playing a single cliched type of race like let's say an elf fresh from the treetop woodland wilds you have other options. You can instead choose the High Elf or Drow subraces.  Virtually every race has at least two or three different bloodlines or sub-groups to pick from and they all bring something else into the mix to be enjoyed.

While the often over-done ideal of an elf (using my previous example to continue the point) is one of a bow and sword clad figure draped in greenery stalking defilers of nature can be entertaining to some it isn't everyone's cup of tea. But then again, not everyone may want to play an aloof, self-entitled elf who was raised around an intimate arcane education that they, by all accounts, probably take for granted. Whichever brand of elf they prefer it is presented for them to use to build the adventurer they want to explore untold tales with. And, as I also already mentioned, they can do so with their own obvious differences.

Your standard racial traits will always apply to whatever character you choose to make. In the case of an elf they all share a common thread of being blessed with speed, hand-eye coordination and reflexes as reflected in their racial modifier to a player's dexterity attribute. However, where a High Elf receives an additional bonus to intelligence, Wood Elves instead get one for their wisdom. It may not seem like much of a difference but even subtle touches like this both have an affect as well as provide a tangible element for players to customize their concept with. Couple this with other traits like how a High Elf receives a cantrip (level 0 spell that can be cast at will) from the wizard spell list, how a Wood Elf can move faster or hide even when only obscured slightly by natural phenomenon and you can build two very different elven heroes.

All in all there are four common races described in the book and five uncommon ones for players to pick from (with the uncommon ones being... well; not quite as commonly found among most populations or only suitable in some settings). The common four are all core classics with subraces to offer plenty of options. They include; Dwarves, Elves, Halflings and Humans. The uncommon races are some familiar staples as well but arguably might be out of place in some campaigns if only less so than say some of the more bizarre/monstrous options out there. Their lineup includes the likes of Dragonborn, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings. [I should point out that I still find it completely questionable that Tieflings are once more presented in a core book while their counterpart the Aasimar are not. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever but I suppose there may be some argument somewhere that can make a case for it's inclusion that I am not aware of.]

After races comes classes, which happens to be another area with plenty to choose from. A player is presented with a grand total of no less than a dozen classes that include: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard and Warlock. Each fully detailed from levels 1-20 and with some interesting options arrayed. Every class really does have it's own strengths and identity that you can get a good feel for. Want a warlock that is more than just a ' I made a deal with something infernal for power' trope? Easy, you can go with an Archfey or Great Elder One patron and not just the flavor of your character changes but some of their abilities do as well. Everything is not just set in stone - a fighter isn't just a walking tank that takes damage and say's 'I attack it' every turn. There is some real potential here that I can see for some fascinating characters that either embody the ideal of a classic version on that class or steps outside the box to show us something new and exciting. [I still confess I, personally see no real reason why Monk is a class in a core supplement for a fantasy game like D&D but that is just my own opinion. Your mileage may vary.]

Without nitpicking every single section and detail I'll highlight some of the other various things the 5th edition Players' Handbook has to offer.
  • Backgrounds - We are provided with a built in mechanic that allows us to breath an actual background for a character into that isn't just empty pipe smoke. Your background plays a role in what additional skills, traits and things your adventurer brings with them. Say you used to be (or still are) a criminal; you might have training with thieves tools, know someone who knows someone, even have appropriate gear to add to any quick-build setup you need to throw together. It all adds a wonderful ability to add character to your character while making it a functioning part of who they are.
  • Monsters/Creatures - One thing you can't do when wanting to play a game is not have something for the players to fight. Seeing as how the Monster Manual was next up for release but not out when the Players' Handbook was published it is a welcome bit of forethought to include some stat blocks for an assortment of creatures druids might transform into, wizards might summon or simply someone might need to forcibly remove. You don't get anything near to what is sure to be included in the Monster Manual but there is enough useful information for some adventures or handy reference for player's to access for various class features.
  • Personality/Details - This might tie in with Backgrounds but I figure it deserves a separate mention. Your character is not just defined by a simple alignment - of which there is much more than just 'I am the Law,' whimsical but good-natured and indifferent but not evil. Languages with example scripts are included for players to pick from but the gem in this section is the personality traits. In here you are presented options to shape your character like bonds that tie them to things, people or places, ideals they aspire to and flaws as well. It might not be as detailed as say the chapters on spells or equipment but it is a great thing to include in my opinion.
Overall, I have to say I am proud of the new edition, I'm eager to play it and especially to see more of what it has to offer. The only faults I can find is in some small elements that could do with better explanation. One such instance is in Warlocks and their spellcasting - it is implied that they do not require a spellbook for their spells yet, at the same time it is also implied that they are granted this knowledge via their patron. Nowhere does it ever clearly state that they do or do not need a spellbook. It is a minor thing to find fault in but it was something that stuck out at me. Another was skills - there is no chapter organized to explain them or what each does. Instead they are grouped into the section on ability scores and listed with the attributes they are associated with. Again, a minor thing but one I think could cause problems down the road when someone isn't sure or needs to reference what options/actions are available to them regarding their skills.

When you get right down to it, this new edition is shaping up to be a major game changer and a welcome return all rolled into one. I cannot see it as anything but a win, a success and a triumph for players of all types. It promises to breath new life into the game and really polish up things into something fun. I don't own a copy yet but after a lot of peeking about under the hood, beneath the chassis and even in the trunk it is a sure fire bet that I will be buying one in the future.

Is there any higher rating you can give something that, for you, would be a major investment as opposed to a casual expense? I can't think of one. If you can, pick up a copy as soon as possible. If not, you can snag the basic rules and other goodies at Wizards of the Coast website. Every shred of this just screams D&D to me; Gygax would be proud of it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lying Little Signs.

I was recently passing through a nearby city where we drove by a business I used to work at. It isn't something that was unusual, far from it; we've gone by the place countless times. I haven't even worked there in years, furthermore this wasn't the first time I have seen the message posted on their sign. What it was though, was the point where I could take it no more.

The sign was a liar.

Let me start at the beginning; I was the top of my class in college and enrolled in a program that had already ceased being offered - in effect the last of a breed. I had just graduated and as part of a requirement had to sit down with the school's director of career services beforehand which inevitably started several wheels into motion. Prior to my graduation I had worked for the school in a variety of capacities as well as being hired by some fellow students and staff for odd jobs on the side. All this added up to a point where a local computer repair place not far from the school received my resume on behalf of the career services director they found I came both highly recommended and perfectly suited to their needs.

I was contacted for an interview, one I agreed to gratefully and attended. The details were fairly straightforward and exciting for me. They needed someone to take several dozen towers bought in bulk, identify what worked/didn't and then systematically bring them back to life to be resold. It was right up my alley as the kind of thing I was particularly talented at as well as what I had gone to school for. I loved hardware, I hated to see someone who couldn't say 'this is where the problem is,' and instead shrugged before swapping everything out with new parts without any appreciation.

The pay itself wasn't great but I hadn't expected anything major just out of school. I had graduated with various degrees, certificates etc. including an A+ accreditation but had not had the money to pay to take my A+ certification exam itself. One of the agreements of my accepting the job was that they would pay for me to get that very certification along with a variety of other certifications.

When I showed up for my interview I did so by being early, politely and dressed respectfully. Now, I will admit for the record that I did at the time have long hair and a goatee. However (and I must stress this) I kept that hair clean, well groomed and typically worn in a tight braid that ended about the middle of my backside. My goatee itself was likewise maintained, trimmed and neat. Both I was assured would be permissible for my job although I would have to purchase a wardrobe of dress shirts, ties and pants.

I did exactly that, even buying tools and things to use on the job. I even agreed to leave my current job at the time, one that I had held all through school along with my work for the school with less notice than I preferred but more than they had initially wanted me to give them. All in all I made a lot of concessions to take what seemed to be my first real job in what looked to be the beginning of my career. I even conceded to the awkward notion of being hired through a temp agency as a trial basis before becoming officially part of the staff.

The first day of showing up for work I was blindsided by the demand to shave and cut all my hair off. Something I didn't prefer having to do but as I responded at the time; "you can tell me what style you would like and that is how I'll cut it if that is what it takes for this job." My wife didn't enjoy the news herself either but we bowed to it and moved forward.

In short order I was cackling like Victor Frankenstein in a back corner with an army of revived machines cleaned and purring to life eager to be put into use. They struggled to keep me fed with new corpses to reanimate, autopsy or salvage. Before long I was pressed into service riding along to do service calls and then eventually sent out on my own. I was traveling across not just adjacent states but sometime 2 or 3 states away to do warranty work - even showing up quite to my surprise to be asked why I wasn't in the infamous little geek squad car. Little did I know that Best-Buy's Geek Squad didn't actually come out and fix things; that was what people like us were paid by them to do.

Things weren't perfect but they were going forward. The problem was I had already been witness to too many things that left me feeling dirty some of which I had to refuse to take part in. When a customer brings a machine in to get fixed there was a bench fee for them to even look at it. It was a mandatory requirement that you bring your restore discs, documentation etc. with it when you did. And, if it turned out repairs were more than you wanted to spend you could waive paying the bench fee and instead surrender your machine for parts. It would be given new life by me or parted out - any number of things.

This is where things started to get dark for me. If we didn't have the restore disc for a unit in the boss's collection then we were told to call the manufacturer and tell them we were the original owner of the unit to request a replacement. We were blatantly asked to commit fraud. Then came the infamous Microsoft Product Key. I was painstakingly instructed how to carefully remove a product key's serial number sticker and replace it on another machine. After which I was required to call Microsoft and claim that our machine's key wouldn't work because we had had to replace a hard drive or some such. [Side note/fun fact - You can only replace so many components on your PC before the operating system stops recognizing that it is the same system. Microsoft can authorize your key to work on your machine or issue a new one but stripping a valid key off one machine to reuse on another, especially for resale is a massive violation. Any vendor can purchase a license/keys to use instead, even at a discount.] The worst part of it all was that at the end of each day at work I was the one with my hand and name on those units. If anything ever happened once they ended up in a customer's hands it would all come back to me.

I started carrying a memo pad in my pocket recording every serial number, every product key, every detail, dates etc. on everything I touched. I wanted to keep the job and make it work. I wanted to get my certification and become exactly what I had hoped to be; a computer technician. But I refused to tell anyone that I was the consumer who owned the device. I refused to lie to customers or withhold my advice when they asked me. I did every job asked of me in the way it was worth doing; the right way.

One day after being gone all day (I was typically handed a pile of parts and service orders, shoved out the door into a car and told not to return unless the boxes were all empty. This was generally coupled with no map to where I was going or itinerary so I had to get very good at improvising my plan of attack.) I returned to receive the news that things had been slowing down. One of the two co-owners and the professional face who handled all the high end side of things was going to be having surgery so other technicians were being shuffled about. Unfortunately that also meant that since I was the last one to be hired I was the first one to be asked to leave. And, since I had been brought in via a temp agency there was no need for anything more than being told that and that was it.

Suddenly it all just stopped. I then discovered that since I hadn't officially been an employee there I couldn't even claim it for resumes etc. Next I saw the lot next to the shop get cleared and replaces with an improved parking lot, a new fleet of cars - even a small storage building transformed into a little business for one of the owner's friends. While I looked for work at the unemployment office a case worker even informed me with glee that a local computer repair place was looking for someone just like me!

Imagine my surprise. I had been hired to do a job just long enough to squeeze every benefit they could from me using false promises and then let go. Then I find things weren't so bad after all; quite the opposite. Now they were looking for a fresh young student hot off the assembly line to toss into the meat grinder. I smiled and politely waived the offer aside. "Something tells me that they wouldn't be interested in me," I explained.

But the biggest problem I cannot get over, like I mentioned at the beginning was their sign. It reads, in rather sloppy placement; We Fix Computers Here. Which, I can attest is a bare faced lie. The entire time I worked there I witnessed (even personally ordered at times) virtually no machine to ever be fixed as per the definition. I saw people lied to in order acquire their property. Customers were convinced to purchase new computers. There was even machines that were made of entirely new components and returned to the customer with a hefty bill. But almost nothing actually repaired. The only exception being the work I did in a small corner in the back. However even that I cannot call the entirety of the work being repair.

If someone brings me a problem and they ask me to fix it; I want to be able to hand them back what they brought me with the problem solved or an explanation as to what went wrong. That is why people bring you something to work on; they expect it to be fixed. Every time I see that sign I can't help but shake my head and ask how they can lie to people in such a manner.

I won't name them, nor do I generally go out of my way to bad mouth the business in question. But if anyone asks me I discourage them from using their services. You can make money without abandoning ethical, moral or legal behavior. You can also be a computer technician by just being the person people can trust to call when they need a problem solved. I'd rather keep that trust myself, I guess for others the feeling isn't necessarily mutual.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Summer Of Silver Pen Surprises.



A Summer Of Silver Pen Surprises.

It’s been a bit since I have posted any manner or regular writing or musings of any kind. That isn’t an excuse or validation it is simply the truth. My summer has been an awkward one, it has brought with it a mixture of twists and turns that are in short best surmised by saying they have kept everything shifting around me.

We started my children’s summer vacation off by taking them to a local historical park complete with a civil war museum and still standing landmarks. It was a symmetry thing; the previous summer we ended by taking a family picnic to the same location and thought it felt fitting to begin this one by doing the same. Everyone had fun and it was the least we could afford to do at the time – a full blown vacation of any kind was simply impossible.

Later in the summer we were able to make a short jaunt up to another local place of interest; the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. While there we toured the Nature Station seeing all manner of animals – a good number of which frequent our yard – in a natural and neutral way most people rarely do. After which we enjoyed a pleasant picnic at Hematite Lake where I literally stumbled on a beautiful silver Cross ink pen that still functioned (insert irony here). Then we followed it all up with a family hike around the perimeter of Hematite Lake, a trail some 2 ¼ to 2 ½ miles long.

By summer’s end we pulled together two final fun events to wrap things up. The first was a day at a nearby water park organized for families with children suffering from emotional or mental disabilities. We weren’t able to stay nearly as long as the kids might have liked but it was a little overwhelming. The last hurrah of summer was a huge surprise for my children. We woke them up early one morning, loaded up in our van and drove to a destination we didn’t tell them anything about. It turned out to be the St. Louis Zoo.

All the fun trips and events aside – which was infinitely more than we have been able to do for them virtually ever – there were other projects and things to tackle. There were repairs to be made on our van, things around the house to be replaced, fixed etc. We’ve been rather busy but it hasn’t been easy or all pleasant to be fair.

We lost my Grandfather back in June. It’s something I have talked about already and affected me greatly. I also finally relented from my months of hoping and trying to remain patient about seeing a doctor about my right wrist/hand. The surgery done last November hadn’t seemed to be showing the results we expected and unfortunately the doctor who had preformed the procedure had since moved on.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was a chain of events that would set off. First I was sent to an expert to evaluate my condition. He reluctantly confided in me that in his professional opinion he wasn’t sure there would be much he could do to help me as it looked like a circulatory issue. So, I was sent for some tests. During the tests there was some obvious difference between my arms but the results declared everything was still within normal ranges.

That returned me to square one with no real clue where to go next. At that point my Wife and I went back to my family doctor to try and figure out what we could do. Upon further observation he concluded that there must be something Neurological in nature that he would like me to bring up with my Neurologist. His concern was readily apparent when he could see better what I had been describing. My hand has been losing all color and taking on a blue-grey or purplish hue, even turning cold or seemingly absent a pulse. I can’t really feel anything with it and there is an issue of pain as well. To put it bluntly; I have almost no real use of my right arm.

My doctor finally asked a question that hadn’t quite occurred to me. He asked how far up the numbness went. Now, my immediate answer was that it was isolated to my hand and maybe partially up my forearm. But once he started pinching his way gradually along we realized I wasn’t feeling it even when he reached my inner arm stopping just at my arm pit.

I couldn’t feel it. My wife emphasized just how hard he was actually pinching me – hard enough to discolor the skin and leave red marks like when pinched by anyone who means it. His assessment was an obvious one; either I was far tougher than I let on or something serious is going on. And, if it was the later then there was a general fear that my entire arm might deteriorate further without action being taken.

I guess now all I can do is place my faith in my Neurologist being able to piece this puzzle together. Because, currently I struggle to write even a few sentences on paper or do more than brush my teeth or tie my shoes. Typing isn’t as bad but only in small bursts and only if I keep an eye on where my hands are.

This made it really awkward when I started getting calls to come help get my Father up out of the floor. It took some clever thinking I must admit, being effectively one handed. You see, he has been suffering from a heart condition most of his life and recently discovered he has been having seizures as well. Now, much like me he doesn’t drive and is rarely left alone. He’s had some close calls that have scared us all considerably of late but for him there is a ray of hope. They want to implant a device in his chest to help him regulate signals sent to his brain to help stop his seizures. We know it works because my older sister has one and has for some time. The issue; he already has a device that monitors and records his heart in place where they would like to stick the other. Further complicating matters is the fact that the doctor who installed the ‘loop recorder’ had recently passed away. That leaves them in limbo about getting permission to remove one in order to implant the other.

I guess it is true what they say; some people really do have all the luck.

But mark my words: I am not making excuses. This isn’t the end of my writing by any means. It is like I tell my own children; make solutions instead of excuses. That is precisely what I aim to do. With a little luck and some stubborn determination perhaps things will improve.

I hope you’ll bear with me in the mean time and if you’ve enjoyed any of my stories thus far then all I can say is that I’ll try to keep raising the bar from here on out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Wealth of Wisdom Not Found in Words.



Originally I hadn't intended to share this in this way. However, after it was read at the funeral for my Grandfather it has occurred to me that I owed it to him to share it with those who weren't able to attend. As such, I offer it here in this format for anyone so interested:

The Wealth of Wisdom Not Found in Words.

If you will kindly bear with me, I’ve never been very skilled at speaking – I’m used to being the one writing the words instead of the one speaking them.

Fred Howard is my Grandfather. Over the course of his life he has worn many different hats; he has been a carpenter, a soldier, a father, a husband and a friend. But at the very core of his being he is best described – in my mind – as a noble man. To those who knew him, I think you can agree with me that he would never ask for such praise or speak as highly of himself. My Grandfather was a man of humility, of honor and honesty.

There is a phrase he once told me as a child that I have never forgotten. In so many ways, you could say it was the closest thing to his personal motto and trademark as anything ever could be. What he said was this; “If a job is worth doing, then it is worth doing right the first time.” It was more than just how he approached every task, be it crafting a cabinet to building a box or even designing a dresser. It is how he lived his life. It is evident in how he lived every day. So I can say with absolute certainty that he can hold his head high, because as I look back I have no doubt that he did the job right as we all should endeavor to.

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I relished any chance to see something he was working on, to ride with him on any errand and to learn anything he could tell me about. For years I longed for the day when I would be big enough to learn everything he knew about working with wood and how to build things.

Sadly, health and circumstances prevented anything of the sort from ever being possible. However, thanks to my Grandfather’s influence there were other more valuable lessons that he imparted to me. He did so without ever having to truly lecture or make speeches. He did so by being an example of discipline, dedication and decency. Thanks to my Grandfather I saw a consistent image of what a man should always strive to be. He was humble, honest and honorable; all the things that make good men great.

I know that in his passing many will lament his absence; they will remember him fondly and talk warmly of him. But what we should all take the time to realize is that he will never truly be gone. He lives on in each of us, whether we realize it or not. Every time my little brother lifts a hammer to nail two boards together; it is with my Grandfather’s example behind him. When my Mother cares for someone who needs a hand she shows the same compassion and preservation of dignity that her Father has shown her. Anytime I encourage my own children to uphold their word and responsibilities I am passing on the same wisdom my Grandfather provided me.

My Grandfather wasn’t the most educated of men; he wasn’t rich or famous in most uses of the word. What he was, was a decent, honest and hard working man. He took care of his church, and led the singing there – not because he wanted to stand in the limelight or feel special – but because it was a job that needed doing and he could. To my knowledge, he never has been awarded any honors or acclaim. Even if he had been I doubt he would have ever made a fuss about the matter or wanted anyone else to. But if any man ever deserved to have their life honored and remembered it is my Grandfather. His legacy is a living one; of being an example others should strive to emulate.

In parting I would like to end with the words I wrote as a dedication from a story that was in part inspired by my memories of my Grandfather;

Dedicated to my beloved Grandfather; a more honest, honorable and simply strong character of a man I have never known. May we all be blessed to have such a handy hammer in our lives to help build us into a better man or woman.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Litany of Life Lessons.



A Litany of Life Lessons.

Throughout the course of our lives we are granted any number of precious moments with which to treasure. Frozen little jewels that, much like seeds, imbed in us the cornerstones that will inevitably shape the foundation of what we will become. They can be as simple and innocuous as a phrase or as involved as a deep heartfelt discussion. Whatever form they take, we owe it to ourselves and those who made such an impact on us to reflect on them from time to time.

For me, I try to do so as often as I can. But try as you might there are those situations that prompt you to review the scope of influence that some important people have wielded on your life.

Right now, I find myself deep in thought about the effect my Grandfather has had over my life – and, by extension my own Mother as well. Perhaps it is only fitting with the impending holiday approaching. Truth be told; his rapidly declining health keeps my mind trained on the topic of his life.

For as long as I can recall my Grandfather has been an idealized hero to my eyes. In reality I am well aware that he is merely mortal and just as fallible as anyone else. However, even that logic seems faulty to me as an adult though. By my own reckoning he is the closest thing to everything a saint, a knight, even a kingly man should be.

I never was afforded the luxury of getting to know my Father’s father. Unfortunately, he passed away just shy of a year before I was born. That said the only knowledge I have of the man is from little anecdotes and insight others have offered me. In sharp contrast my Mother’s father was the only grandfather I have ever known.

As a young man I spent many weekends and holidays spending time at my Grandfather’s house. Around the age of 7 my family moved out of the city limits and into the county to put us just over 2 miles from my Grandfather if you go by road. Adventurous boys quickly discovered other avenues by way of woodland trails and the like to cut that distance over time. For us the whole experience of visiting my Grandfather was best described as something magical.

For quite some time we were limited from freely exploring all areas of the house – a decision I can respect in hindsight. Even so, with time our curiosity grew along with our trust and little by little we were allowed to sleep upstairs and investigate all manner of things. We rode to job sites with my Grandfather and watched as he put hammer and nail to use to make masterfully crafted things out of wood. We escorted him and his beloved German Shepherd Mack to the vet for shots. As both the Song Leader and Caretaker of our church we even joined him countless times and endeavored to aid him in his regular duties.

I have spoken before about being introduced to chestnuts thanks to the chestnut trees that grew on my Grandfather’s yard. I’ve even mentioned his dutiful service to his country when called during World War II. I may have even had a word or two to spare about his hard working nature and handicraft regarding building things from wood – especially his own home in point of fact. But there are a number of things I may never have taken the time to talk about.

In retrospect I don’t think I would have ever become a writer at all if not for my Grandfather. A single example is etched into my memory; an image of me setting cross-legged in his living room floor with paper and pencil. I was working on a story about a ‘white knight,’ all shining armor and pure hero. Now, my Grandfather isn’t the most educated man in the world but he is far from being anyone you might say is lacking in mental ability. He asked me a little about the project my attention was focused on, then with a smile and a nod encouraged me to keep up the good work.

That single passing instance was perhaps the first thing that provided me forward momentum to push myself. If he thought that what I was doing was good work then who was I to argue? It was his personal motto that if something was worth doing then it was worth doing right the first time. And to his credit I have never once seen or heard a single soul ever having to ask him to redo any of his work, much less complain about its quality. I have always tried to work towards the same standards, even though my own skills might not be equal to his.

When my Grandmother suffered a stroke my Grandfather stopped working to try and care for her. My Mother, a nurse herself, did likewise and they moved in with us. Without any real thoughts or complaints my Brother and I offered up our bedroom. We basically lived in a corner of our living room for a time, helping out in any way that we could. Sadly, during my freshman year of high school my Grandmother passed away. She did so with all of us by her side and as I watched on with her husband always there. He never once shirked from his duty, never once acted anything other than dignified and shouldered every burden without complaint or regret.

He never returned to work. Everyone thought that he might simply give up and soon join his wife – but much as he had always advised he never gave up. Once he returned to his home it was a daily task of mine to deliver a meal to him. It was a highlight to my day as I would sit with him for a stretch and just talk about anything he wanted to. Although he never was able to take me under his wing and teach me even a portion of the carpenter’s trade as I had often dreamed he always had the time to give me advice on how to build or fix something. He would even encourage me to borrow various tools of his to do so.

But even though he never was able to teach me how to be a carpenter like him he taught me something far more precious. He showed me how to be a man. He educated me in dignity and honor – even when wearing simple working clothes. From him I learned to never flinch from a smashed thumb, a stabbing splinter or a sore back if there was a job to finish. Even in the face of so much sadness at the loss of a loved one he taught me to hold my head high and show them the respect they deserved.

In summary, I have found that I may have said it best when I dedicated my book ‘Metal In The Moonlight’ to him;

Dedicated to my beloved Grandfather; a more honest, honorable and simply strong character of a man I have never known. May we all be blessed to have such a handy hammer in our lives to help build us into a better man or woman.

I am deeply honored, blessed and humbled to have ever had such a teacher and example in my life. To all who knew him or have been touched by his life I can only pray they value his influence in their life as I do. He deserves to be remembered and respected – even if he would never ask for any such attention.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Day Wil Wheaton High-Fived My Son.

My son, Bryn, is 7 years old. He suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. He takes medication, see's a therapist and is even in a special program to provide him with help learning to adjust and manage everything daily life throws his way. Bryn's hero is a well known geek and all-around respected figure; Wil Wheaton.

Yeah. He's more than kind of a big deal to Bryn. For my son he is more than just some celebrity 'cool guy', to him he is someone he can aspire to be like. My wife and I have kicked around the idea of reaching out to Mr. Wheaton ( I know, it sounds odd to refer to him in such a manner ) but often just wasn't really sure if we should or even if we could. For whatever reason this morning it just seemed right, like it was more than just a novel idea mentioned from time to time.

So this morning I fired off the following email with the subject 'High Praise From A Miniature Mouth':

Dear Mr. Wheaton,
I am writing to you not on my own behalf, but on the behalf of my seven year old son. His name is Bryn and, well, to be blunt he looks up to you so very much. He suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which at times can prompt him to have panic attacks as well as bouts of depression. You should see his face light up anytime he sees you talking about some game, on a T.V. Show or just basically being you. Don't even get me started on what happens when we mention the infamous "Booty Mine" song. When his doctor mentioned medication he remarked about how he didn't mind it or having to go for therapy if it helped him because that is what Wil Wheaton does. When his therapist made mention of how therapy dogs can be of help he again rationalized that Wil Wheaton has dogs too and that they seem to help him. Now he has a 4 month old German shepherd/lab mix puppy that a Army Veteran with ptsd had to give up due to moving.
My point is, that you my dear sir are an inspiration and role model to my son and to me as a father. I've been a geek and a gamer all my life and had my own struggles as well. Anytime Bryn is down, or anxious about something all I know I have to do is mention the "Booty Mine" or your name and he smiles. Of all the awards, accolades and trophies that anyone could offer you the only one that I can give you is my gratitude and the knowledge that you have made a huge impact on someone so small. Someone who like you struggles everyday. Someone, who because of you knows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Thank You.
Sincerely,
Matthew C. Gill

We never expected in a million years to get any reply. To us we just hoped that the message might inform Mr. Wheaton of the powerful impact he has on others, even little ones. We were both shocked and somewhat overjoyed to recieve the following response a couple of hours later.

Hi Matthew,

Please excuse any misspellings in this email, I have something in both
of my eyes.

If you would, please give Bryn a high five for me, and tell him I said
that I want him to be kind, be honest, be honorable, work hard, and
always be awesome.

Thank you for sharing this with me. I struggle to various degrees every
day, and you've restored all of my HP and mana today.

All the best,

Wil

Needless to say, this afternoon I will have a young man who just might explode. I cannot wait to tell him and provide the High-Five via proxy that might never be forgotten.

Great men do exist and they deserve being made aware of it from time to time. Thank you Mr. Wheaton.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What I’ve Been Doing Wrong.



What I’ve Been Doing Wrong.

While revising my most recent story I have discovered no shortage of short-comings to be addressed. But even once I set about writing entire new sections I found things far from ideal. So I did the one thing that may come hard for some writers; I took a long hard look at my work and asked myself what I’d been doing wrong.

Now, initially that may sound relatively easy. The problem about tackling such a task though is that to some people there are no flaws in their work. For some writers there may be essentially a big blind spot when it comes to critiquing themselves. And, let’s face it; you may be your harshest critic but if you can’t see what is wrong you’ll never see what you can fix.

What follows is going to be a list of things that I have been able to point out about my own work. They are all applicable to other peoples work as well so take what valuable advice there is to be had from them and apply it to your own if it helps. Even if you don’t know how to address them, just knowing what they are can lead you to learning more about how to improve your writing.

  • Using I: There are more ways to deliver details or use internal monologue. ‘I’ do not have to place everything into the ‘I’ bucket. Be smarter than that! Look for other ways to say what is being said. Ask yourself; isn’t there a better way to say it?
  • Talk Is Cheap: If everything is being spelled out by internal dialogue then the reader is going to feel led about like a child. Show them! If a sword is sharp don’t spend all day explaining it – show it slicing through something that demonstrates that fact. Don’t waste your words waxing philosophical or repetitively rehashing the same plot points over and over either. Say it, show it then get out and move on. Keep the action in motion – because it isn’t called action by being still.
  • Long Winded Means Little: If I’m making every sentence push the boundaries of run-ons then I’m just creating clutter. Seriously! People don’t want to read redundantly over-burdened paragraphs. Get to a point as efficiently as possible. Make it faster, make it fun. Does it need all those adjectives? Can it be said in fewer words? If so, then do it!
  • Your Protagonist Is The Center Of The Story, But Not The Universe: Even in a first person narrative where the reader is in on a form of literary ride-along the key truth is that you cannot shoulder everything on that. What this amounts to is that you shouldn’t show and tell it all from them alone. Let others speak, show things in the surroundings, and let the reader put the pieces together. To ignore these things is to court death via the ‘everything is ‘I’ issued.’ Never, EVER, allow yourself to stumble into that pitfall.
  • Describe What Is Necessary, Don’t Over Detail What Isn’t: Should you establish the environment? By all means lay that layout out for your reader! But for heaven’s sake don’t waste details on common things like the color of a candle’s wax when you haven’t even named a prominent side character. If it is worth knowing then name it, detail it and don’t waste those words. You don’t have to provide every element about each person or piece of the environment.
  • Clues Are Key: If you’re trying to weave a work with any measure of mystery then you have to keep those keys in mind. You cannot do them lip service or litter them about using little more than the protagonist’s say so. That is just sloppy and a reader will notice it. Take your time, back up and incorporate those clues. Do not make your protagonist the only source.
  •  Being Vague Is Bad, Unless It’s Good: The point being that it is okay to be vague or general if it is appropriate. When it becomes a problem is when you resort to relating everything in terms of ‘something’ this and ‘something’ that. If you are talking about something then say what it is. You are not creating any mystery by being vague. It is okay for the protagonist to not know everything, but that is no excuse to be bland about it.
  • Tone And Voice: The personality may be there, the main character could be sarcastic, witty or charming but if you don’t use it they can’t shine. You have to leverage that and make it work for them. If they are deep and pensive then give them moments to showcase that. But temper those times with caution lest the story stall into a lengthy series of philosophical prose. Find the hero of the story’s voice, find their strengths and play to them but don’t use them exclusively. A strong swordsman is exciting in a fight but if all they can do is fight then they aren’t much fun outside of one. Consider that and by all means do not devolve into the reprehensible realm of the main character is the master of all things. Not only is it cheap, it’s lazy and will cost you any chance at interest.
  • Narrative Nature: Make the choice before you begin and stick with it. If you are going to write in a set form like that of first person narrative then decide on if it is in the moment, looking back or some other variation thereof. Don’t jump around. Pick one and stand firm to it. But consider it well before you start. Think of how you will handle what your narrator will say and relate. You may need times to pause and break up monotony or it may be easier to get lost in the heat of the moment feel. Whatever you’re going for – go for it. Just think it through first.
  • Take Off The Training Wheels: You will discover go to phrases, words and metaphors in your story as you write it. Despite the reflex to lean on them you should try to avoid it. It is a crutch that can cripple. A reader will only find it cute to see a witty ‘like a hot knife through butter’ only so many times. Don’t abuse their intelligence by thinking they’ll not notice some of the same tropes and tricks being shuffled or recycled around.
  • Review Is Okay But Don’t Hammer Over Things Relentlessly: As the plot progresses it makes sense for the hero to review things and consider what to make of them. This can be done internally but shouldn’t be the primary or the sole means for this. Let them bounce ideas off of others or debate things. But in the end don’t turn it into a logic loop. Once the reader knows what is going on you shouldn’t slam them with wave after wave of blunt reminders. If a victim died from an unknown cause don’t keep brow beating them by pointing it out.
  • Clever, Clear, But In Context: Watch your characters comments and try to keep them within context. Ask yourself why it matters and what they are speaking about. If they mention how something isn’t going to be simple then make sure you put it into the right context. Why will it be difficult? What does it matter if it is? Why mention it at all? Don’t just sling out commentary for its own sake.
  • Trim Those Tags: Not ever spoken piece of dialogue requires some form of accentuation such as ‘said in astonishment,’ etc. Even if it did, trying to put in emotion or point it out could be better done by showing it. If a character is nervous then let them stutter or drop something to establish that rather then just saying so.
  • Start At The Starting Line, Not Before: Just like a race it is cheating to take those initial strides before the race actually is being run. Start things off at the beginning, just before things change or right as the ball gets rolling. You don’t have to begin three months ago or thirteen years prior. Back-story can be filled in later or as you go when it becomes relevant.
  • Jab, Don’t Gab: This goes back to the idea of getting in and getting out. If paragraphs are droning on and on to take up large portions you need to break things up. Rapid fire those jabs, land that literary punch and then position to follow up. Keep the reader on their toes and keep the action moving.
  • Dumpshock: Sometimes there is valuable information to relay to the reader; research to be passed on and the like. Did you know that a thicker blade is heavier, more likely to tire an arm out faster and less likely to be turned aside/snapped? Does that even have any bearing at all on the scene in the story? If so then by all means highlight it. But if not, then let it go. The reader isn’t in it for a lecture on the mechanics of melee combat. Just because you’re informed, interested or experienced about a topic doesn’t mean it will impress them by flinging facts. Limit the dump truck data and filter it down to essential details only. The reader will appreciate the reduced clutter and confusion.
  • Convenient Plot Isn’t Convenient: If the hero is handed the key puzzle piece at the perfect moment to save the day nobody really wins. Some acts of serendipity can be expected, even understandable. However outright convenient plot points simply do not work. If the story hinges on the bad guy stumbling and accidentally shooting themselves in the foot it is time to rethink things. Motive will go a long way – use it to form a foundation but watch out for all things involving coincidence. The characters must be responsible for any resolution otherwise why else are they in the story?
  • Cut Those ‘To Be’s’ Off At The Pass: Words like am, are, is, was, were, be, become and became can distance the audience from the action, so avoid them. Here are some examples – Instead of saying will be different try will differ. Instead of saying it is interesting to me use it interests me.
  • Tear It To Pieces: Dismantle, dissect, analyze and evaluate. Carpenters and mechanics deconstruct in order to see how to build. Artists and architects scrutinize and study in order to shape. Smash your story to bits, pick up the pieces and improve it. See what makes it work and what doesn’t. There is always more to learn and room to improve.
  • Ground Rules Are Your Gravity: Define and establish what can and cannot be done by your characters. Hold those tenets true and keep them as an anchor. If the hero can see through a lie one minute then you can’t allow him to fall for a villain’s manipulative subterfuge by lying the next. Explain why a character can do what they do and allow them limits. Don’t give them catch all talents – even superman can’t see through lead, is crippled by kryptonite and is a hopelessly na├»ve Samaritan. Create the world first then set the story inside of it. Use the setting/background to develop the characters. Throw in things that fit for a reason. There must be a reason the story takes place and the characters happen (or happen to be) there. Make it an integral part, it should be a character all its own.

Just some things I found while trying to see what all I was doing wrong in my own story. Maybe they will help you in your own work.